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The Secret Life of Philip Rieff

Rescuing the pioneering literary and social critic from the clutches of boring right-wingers and ‘Jews of culture’ on the 100th anniversary of his birth

Blake Smith
December 15, 2022
University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center
Rieff in 1957University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center
University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center
Rieff in 1957University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center

Philip Rieff is remembered today—if at all—as the one-time husband of his former student Susan Sontag, and a crankily conservative observer of American society, which he saw as violent, stupid, and doomed. The sociologist is appreciated by some thoughtful figures on the right today as an advocate against what he perceived as the misguided “liberations” of the 1960s and ’70s, for a return to “repression” and respect for the “sacred.” He invited readers to imagine himself as a dour, lonely prophet castigating his age, appealing to an unknown but surely small number of fellow “Jews of culture” to save whatever could be saved of our vanishing civilization from the barbarism of its novelty-seeking, omni-tolerant elites.

From this vantage Rieff resembles other apparently tediously moralizing “Jews of culture” of his era, like Allan and (no relation) Harold Bloom, who fixed themselves in the American mind as public intellectuals by defending the traditional literary canon against the supposedly conjoined threats of multicultural proto-wokeness and mass-culture ignorance. He resembles, indeed, no one more than his ex-wife; in the last years of her career Sontag transformed herself from an enthusiastic analyst of the avant-garde and popular entertainment into a loftily isolated mandarin speaking as if she alone could uphold the standards of literary culture (which seemed to mean writing a long stream of shallow prefaces to New York Review of Books publications of novels by dead European writers).

These critics deserve rescue from the humorless role of prophet into which they were sometimes seduced. Upon them should be performed the reverse of the operation that Rieff, with the help of Sontag, carried out in his first book, Freud: the Mind of the Moralist (1959). Rieff argued that Freud had presented himself in his writings as a man of science, soberly working towards a disinterested truth that had nothing to do with what he contemptuously dismissed as the “worldviews” that promised meaning and orientation to believers. But, Rieff insisted, we should no more take Freud at his word than he took his patients at theirs. Freud was really sneaking morality back into respectability under the noses of self-consciously enlightened, secular readers, giving a new, only ostensibly “scientific” basis to the old injunctions and restrictions that had safeguarded the family and shored up the individual as a self-constraining ethical agent. Science and critique are the masks that old-fashioned moralism must wear in an age no longer capable of faith.

Rieff (with Sontag) thus revealed himself to be one of the 20th century’s most skillful practitioners of a method of reading too often exclusively associated with Leo Strauss (whose influence, to be sure, was at work at the University of Chicago, where both Rieff and Sontag were educated). This method assumes that the arguments, claims, or dogmas that thinkers most vigorously assert are not the real content of their teaching. Rather, they are the tribute they pay to prevailing prejudices. Beneath this surface, the writer aims to awaken thinking among (perhaps only a select minority of) readers. For this, he assumes masks, perhaps of the comedian—or man of woe.

Rieff found Freud’s moralism beneath the mask of science. So what can we find beneath Rieff’s mask of moralism? For one thing, one of the sharpest accounts of the pleasure of teaching, and its intimate connection to eros—something perhaps a man who married his own brilliant, beautiful undergraduate student knows with particular intensity. In his 1973 essay Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Second Death, Rieff gave what was, ostensibly, a jeremiad against American society and education, their new “democratic” and “tolerant” permissiveness by which everything appeared possible—except the refusals and commitments that alone make character and culture.

Here and in his later writings Rieff glowered with special hostility at the sexual expressions of the new laxity. He warned that Americans were returning to the barbaric era of the tribal “orgy,” undoing the lessons in self-denial and sublimation in which “our teachers” from Moses to Freud had schooled us. One cannot, he suggested, be a “Jew of culture” at an orgy. The gravest expression of this orgiastic barbarism was homosexuality—a position one might write off as a bit of pique on Rieff’s part, given that Sontag had left him for a woman.

Rieff was not, however, a conservative in the sense of wishing to wrench the course of history back to some earlier, ostensibly less degenerate age. His ideal society was not one of virtuous citizens believing and doing what they ought, but as he put it, with painedly moderate hope, one of “vast public networks by which secrets lives are linked … remote enough for each life to remain as it is, inviolate, secret from all others.” For a homophobe, he had an unusually keen sense that we all might benefit from having a closet to hide in.

Politics, by Rieff’s lights, is the art of maintaining public networks of order that cover and shade private spaces of freedom. In these spaces, screened from “[p]ublicity, calling itself democratic or scientific,” from the demands of our neighbors and also of the attention-hungry parts of ourselves that we make knowable, we can enjoy “the secret life … the only life worth living, which is not too well known, or necessarily liked by others.” Rieff here defends not traditional morality, or indeed any morality at all, but a vision of public moral order as the means to protecting a private, individual freedom—the freedom to be, in the eyes of one’s neighbors, perverse.

This is exactly the language used in our own day by queer theorist Joseph Litvak to describe “the life everyone would want if he or she were permitted to imagine it.” It is equally what Leo Strauss took to be the “philosophical life” that a wise person might lead, hidden and sheltered behind outward respect for public laws and conventions. (That Strauss and queer theory, appreciated by hardly any of the same thinkers today, share a common fund of insights derived from a certain legacy of “Jews of culture” keen on guarding the inner life against demands for transparency and conformity, and on reconciling an antinomian way of life with the security of public order, is a—correct!—claim for another essay.) Concealed from politics—but only ever by politics—are the spaces in which we become ourselves, pursuing pleasures in friction with reigning opinion, as we make tentative, tenuous, temporary connections to other lives. It is with this conception of politics, and of the utterly unpolitical darkness in which the frail candle of one’s own, real, life can be lit that Rieff urges teachers to “depoliticize our teachings.”

Elsewhere in Fellow Teachers—anticipating by several decades what enthusiasts of Michel Houellebecq take to be the French novelist’s lucidly depressing and in fact dimly derivative insights on contemporary society—Rieff warns that we are coming to understand “sexuality” as a domain like “the economy” in which ideally youthful and vigorous competitors “struggle for power,” pushing out the old, unfit, and unappealing.

It’s true that since the sexual revolution, to which Rieff was a witness (and of which his marriage was arguably a casualty), we have “liberated” individuals to pursue sex on the winner-take-all terms of our economic life. We speak of a sexual marketplace, of sexual capital, of the sexually marginalized. Likewise, borrowing from the vocabulary of political life, we speak of sexual power, sexual exploitation, sexual equality. But Rieff’s brief, elusive comparison of teaching to sex invites us to think afresh not how people around us—and how we ourselves so often unthinkingly—talk about teaching and sex, but what our experiences of them actually are.

Consider the seminar. The students have filed in, taken their seats, and are chatting with their neighbors or—increasingly often—listlessly swiping at their phones, until the teacher poses some question that summons an embarrassed silence. The first question is always somehow wrong—too obvious (“What was Marx’s argument in this text?”), too open (“What did you think of the reading?”), too clumsily fumbling for the brighter students to deign to answer. Or, the teacher thinks, maybe this time they really don’t know and have nothing to say. There is a moment of abashed confusion, of mutual unmastery, in which we hold this silence together before a student gives, usually, an innocently inept response—for which one is grateful, because it allows a discussion to begin.

What happens next may be pleasure. As a student says something confusedly, awkwardly—and I struggle to maintain an expression of nonjudgmental receptivity—suddenly a fragment of their speaking lights me up. “Yes! Great, tell me more about that.”

I am now leaning toward them, pointing with a finger that invisibly spotlights the thought to be brought forward. Or it is something I say that strikes them, and I see them suddenly bent over, writing I am never sure what. Fidgety rustles of hands, legs and heads; tics flashing across vacant-eyed faces; sentences that come in jerky, repetitive, backtracking bursts and circumambulations around the point we don’t yet know—we are in this ecstasy of thinking together, which is as far from looking smart as anyone in the midst of making love is from looking sexy. We prefer, certainly, to think of ourselves as we imagine smart, sexy people look, not the way genuinely thinking, erotic people are, caught up in a passionate, unruly eagerness of groping towards a culminating, anticipated point that is not yet within reach.

Real eros and real thinking allow us to suspend our narcissistic self-images and our normal preoccupation with seducing others. They likewise free us, for a moment, from the competitions and conformities of economics and politics (arenas where we show off and sustain our self-images). The pleasurable intensities of inner life—whether intellectual or sexual—are similar to each other and also different in nature, Rieff seems to suggest, from the “vast public networks” where we perform as virtuosic competitors or virtuous citizens.

Insofar as teaching is about pleasure, he argues, it has less to do with power than with a concept contemporary Americans of all political persuasions seem to have trouble assimilating: authority. While power, the energy of politics by which some command others, can be obeyed without being respected, authority (which with power is too often confused) speaks to us through pleasure. Our delight at seeing a beautiful body reminds us that there is such a thing as beauty and reproaches us that we have not been sensitive enough to it; our pleasure in thinking reminds us that we have for too long not been thinking. The experience of pleasure is thus a call from some outside authority to better ourselves by seeking more of what is good.

Rieff urges his “fellow teachers” to “know again, upon our bodies how variously it happens that there is no escape from authority.” The pleasure of knowing, and the pleasure of having a body, are indeed reminders which we can ignore but never quite silence, that we are being summoned by something outside the conventions, competitions and narcissistic complacencies of public life, something which is intimately our own and yet which strangely connects us to others, and thereby compels us to alter ourselves.

Although Fellow Teachers appears as a doom-mongering testament to the decline of American culture, Rieff loudly whispers another message to whoever is listening: Consider the ever-present enjoyments of teaching and learning—how they draw us astray from political obediences, whether conceived as conservative or progressive, into those hidden paths by which “secret lives are linked.”

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.